Monday, 8 October 2012

Oh Dear! Book-blogs Harm Literary Criticism

Peter Stothard has been the editor of the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) for over a decade. He is a learned man, extensively read, erudite, scholarly, literate, and knowledgeable, a man of letters, as, I imagine, educated and cultivated men (they are usually men) are described in English novels of the Regency period. (I ‘imagine’ because, after reading Pride and Prejudice, I would pay to watch Countdown, than read another Regency novel. If you want to experience the illusion of time moving really slowly, a minute appearing like an hour and an hour like a day, giving you ample time to appreciate the futility of life, look no further than a Jane Austen novel; but pointlessness is no reason to prolong a useless life.) That must be the reason, or one of the many (worthy) reasons, why Stothard was chosen / elected to chair this year’s Man Booker committee. (I know not how these committees are formed, but if you know how things are done in our land of nobs and snobs—and I have a shrewd guess as to which category Stothard belongs—you will have no trouble in figuring out how chairs of such committees are selected.)

This year’s Man-Booker shortlist, according to Stothard, was decided by ‘argued literary criticism’. I don’t know what it means other than that it must have meant that Will Self’s Umbrella, a 400-plus-pages novel (apparently) without paragraphs or breaks or chapter divisions, written (allegedly) in a post-modernist style had to be on the short-list. (Some years ago I read John Updike’s Seek My Face. That novel too was written without a breaks or chapters, and was tedious beyond endurance; on the positive side it was less than 300 pages.) The short-list also includes two novelists (Tan Twan Eng and Deborah Levy) whose books were rejected several times by main-stream publishers before they were eventually accepted by small publishing houses. Then there is the debut novel of an Indian ‘performance poet’ Jeet Thayil, which, I am happy to reveal, is a hallucinatory tale of opium dens in 1970s Bombay (now Mumbai).

Does the 2012 Booker shortlist have you salivating? If you happen to hold the idea that a novel should be readable, you would be well advised to treat this list with apprehension (possible exception being Hilary Mantel who is on the short-list for her sequel to the 2009 Booker winner Wolf Hall). Readability of a novel, according to Stothard, is a ‘side issue’ when you judge a novel (there go Mantel's chances of winning a second Booker down the toilet; she has committed the cardinal sin of writing novels that are readable). The novel, in case it has escaped your notice, ‘is more than a story’. ‘What is it, then?’ I hear you asking. I am afraid I can’t enlighten you on the matter; I haven’t clue; I always thought—mistakenly, obviously—that since a writer writes a novel because he wants it to be read (why would he publish it otherwise?) it wouldn't be a bad idea to try writing something that is readable. Wrong. ‘Storytelling,’ Stothard reminds us, ‘is a great art and not to be knocked.’

What should an English novel do? Stothard explains. An English (as in language) novel should ‘renew the English language’. If the novel doesn’t renew the English language, then, it is my sad duty to inform you, it has no chance of getting onto the Booker shortlist if Stothard has anything to do with it. The USP of a great novel is that ‘it renews the language in which it is written; it has to offer a degree of resistance.’

I must say I do not understand what any of the above means; sounds like total bollocks (no doubt because I am not a literary critic and did not study English at Cambridge). Does Stothard mean that the novel needs to be so densely written that by the time you have read a few pages migraine is precipitated (as in a Nadine Gordimer novel I recently finished reading)? Or, does he mean that the novel has to be written in such opaque, meandering prose that it repels all efforts on part of the reader to like it (pick any one of William Golding’s novel)? Or does the novel have to be written in such a thought disordered manner as to resist all attempts at interpreting it (as in a Patrick White novel I am struggling with at the minute; I seriously hope that the heroine is going nuts; because if she isn’t, then I am)? Is this what Stothard mean when he says that a great novel has to offer resistance? He may have a point: Gordimer, Golding, and White are all Nobel laureates.

Stothard is not very happy about the book-blogs, either, which, in recent years, have been spreading like lung cancer. Book-blogs, Stothard puts it to you, very humbly (in the best British tradition), are bad news for literature. ‘There is a widespread sense in the UK as well as America, that traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline,’ Stothard laments. ‘Criticism needs confidence in the face of extraordinary external competition. It is wonderful ,Stothard concedes, that there are so many book blogs and websites devoted to books, but (there always is a ‘but’) ‘to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste . . .Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same.’ (Another great British tradition: always sugar-coat your insults.)

Who are these people (in the UK as well as in America) who feel that the future of literary criticism is bleaker than of Afghanistan? The literary critics? Is the number of literary critics (in the UK as well as in America) who would like to tell people whether the book is any good (based on argument) dwindling faster than Spain’s national reserve?

Assuming that the above is true (in which case I announce that I am very concerned), why might that be? And who is to be blamed?

The answer to the first question is straightforward (I think). If literary criticism is in decline, that is because it is not getting published. And it is not getting published because there is not much demand for it. It is really unfortunate, but (as an Indian friend of mine is fond of exclaiming) what to do? You have been running a high quality butcher’s shop, which has been in the family since 1870; but if people want to go to Tesco, ‘what to do?’  I am a Tesco man myself. While it is sad that family butchers are going out of business, I somehow can’t bring myself to believe that it is the worst calamity since the Nazis entered Sudetenland. That is probably because I am not excessively keen on saturating the inside of my body with animal fat. On the rare occasion when I embark on eating red meat my expectations are lower than a crocodile’s piss. Any piece of meat that does not attract flies and won’t give me botulism is good enough for me.

But I digress.

What Stothard is suggesting (I think) is that literary criticism is, without doubt, of superior quality than the crapola that spews forth from book-blogs (‘wonderful’ as they are), and isn’t it a crying shame that these book-blogs are now killing the literary criticism (if that’s what they are doing)?

I have some sympathy with Stothard’s view. Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same—Stothard says; and I agree unhesitatingly. Opinions, as the main character in John Cheever’s Falconer remarks, are like arseholes (or assholes), everybody has one; some are bigger, some smaller (opinions, that is.)

Take this post on this blog for example. I have so far typed 1291 words. And I don’t need you to tell me that it is pure, unadulterated rubbish; complete and utter and absolute nonsense in more ways than I have sufficient breath in my lungs to explain. (It is not my fault. I blame my parents; they didn't give me good education.)

I have also realised that the list of authors I have slagged off in this post is longer than my arm. But I have not put forth any argument. If you are in the mood of manducating argued literary criticism, please visit Sir Peter Stothard’s blog (yes, he contributes posts, overflowing, no doubt, with argued literary criticism, to the TLS blog; and yes, he has a knighthood). I may be accused of many things but I can never be accused of putting forth a cogent argument that would have Peter Stothard nodding with approval. How can I? I wouldn't recognize literature if it ran me over in a tractor. What I have displayed in this post are my likes (rather dislikes; I am sparing in my appreciation and comprehensive in complaints); prejudices if you will.

Is this even a book-blog?  Probably it is in the loose sense of the term; because I write about things vaguely related to books. It is just something I do to pass time. Some people watch football, some people serve in the Salvation Army canteen, some go paragliding, some (in Norfolk) rush out of whichever stable they are rolling in when an aeroplane flies overhead. I upload dyspeptic, aggravated rants on my blog.

It, therefore, came as a great shock to read that the learned chair of the Booker Prize committee views my book-blog—well not my book-blog specifically, but the cohort to which it belongs—for the confidence-anaemia afflicting literary critics.

I sincerely hope that literary criticism flourishes, and gets the much-needed implant of mental whalebone. They have, however, nothing to fear from this book-blog at least. It is essentially of unserious nature. It is, under no circumstances, to be taken seriously. I don’t take it seriously myself.

 The Distinguished Literary Critic. The bookshelf in the background gives a touch of class.